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Category archive: Compulsion

Tuesday July 29 2008


Dear Brian,

I saw today’s Ask Slashdot question: How Do You Fix Education?, and thought of you.

This comment mentions making going to school non-compulsory.


Thanks Rob.

The commenter says: (1) Make going to school non-compulsory; (2) Privatize; (3) Do away with tenure and teachers unions; (4) Allow parents to take their kids out of failing schools.  He ends:

Before you reply, or mod down, ask yourself this. If given an unlimited amount of money for schooling your own child, would you send them to a public school, or a private school? If you opted for the private school, you’ve already agreed with many points on this list, even if you won’t admit that to yourself.

I think this is a category error.  Personally, I agree with the list of proposals, apart from (3) the union thing.  What does “do away with” mean?  Make unions illegal?  If so, then: no.  If it means allowing schools to make union membership a sacking offence, then yes.  If you don’t like that kind of school, don’t teach there.

But, putting that uncertainty to one side, the question concerns how you would change the whole system to something that would be good for everybody.  What you would now do or would like like to do for you own child, with the system unchanged, is a different question.  A major point of libertarian thinking, such as this is, is that all individuals deciding for themselves would aggregate into a good (or best available in the real world) system for all.  I think that’s right.  And a major point of collectivism is that this is not right.  Who is right about that is not illuminated by asking what any individual would personally do to escape the present mess.

This is the same argument as the one that says that socialist politicians who send their kids to private schools are being hypocritical, by revealing their true opinions to be different from their publicly stated opinions.  But thinking that private schools are now better is perfectly consistent with believing that state education could and should be changed until that is not so.  My argument with such politicians is that I think they are wrong about how to improve state education, wrong that it is capable of being improved.  I think they are quite right to do the best they can, now, for their kids.  Making your kids go to bad state schools, even when you can afford to do better, purely because you “believe in” state education, i.e. in state education being improvable at some point in the irrelevantly distant future ... now that is creepy.  I know I have said this before, but I think it’s a point worth repeating.

Thursday July 03 2008


Children of all ages should study philosophy in school to develop their critical thinking skills, education experts said today.

Academics suggest that, rather than start off with Socrates, teachers use common classroom disputes to help children learn about abstract philosophical principles such as fairness, morality and punishment. They give the example of apportioning blame for spilling paint.

The book Philosophy in Schools, edited by Dr Michael Hand of the Institute of Education and Dr Carrie Winstanley of Roehampton University, puts forward several arguments for including philosophy in the school curriculum.

“Critical thinkers are people who reason well, and who judge and act on the basis of their reasoning,” Hand says.

“To become critical thinkers, children must learn what constitutes good reasoning and why it’s important - and these are philosophical matters.

“Exposure to philosophy should be part of the basic educational entitlement of all children.”

And so they should be forced to do it whether they like it or not. That’s what “entitlement” generally means: the government forcing people to receive what it wants to shove down their throats, and this time it’s no different.  People have the “basic right” to do as we bloody well tell them.

The stupid thing is that if the people who think this were actually to try doing it themselves, and just ask if others might like to sample it, it might be quite good, and lots of children might really like it.  And then it might spread, in the hands of people who got the point of it, and wanted the share the good news.  But can you imagine the intellectual chaos, to say nothing of the rebellions from school teachers, that would result from any schools, never mind all schools, being made to do this kind of thing?  Because, don’t you dare, as these wretched authors do - perhaps because they know no other way of saying: “this is a good book, please buy it and read it” -, confuse something being a worthwhile activity with it being something that everyone should be forced to submit to regardless, and have done to them by grumps who think it a ridiculous diversion from their real job.

Many teachers would surely say that what these bossy academics call “philosophy” is just intellectual common sense, and is embedded in the general texture of what they do.  Just as they also teach manners and morals, which people also often say should also be separate modules in the national curriculum, in everything that they do, or try to.  Insofar as these people seem semi-aware of this themselves, then it turns out that they aren’t saying so very much.  They are definition hopping, between two different notions of what “teaching philosophy” means.  They use the separate-module-in-the-syllabus foolishness to get publicity, because it is such a daft idea, but if challenged that they are merely hinting at compulsion to sell their books and boost their own prestige, they will retreat into claiming that all they are really saying is that teaching should be done intelligently.  By jingo, what a brilliant idea.  Let’s (not) buy the book about it.

They are, in short, being philosophically sloppy.

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Thursday June 05 2008

From a piece entitled Sad children do better than happy ones in school:

However, Dr Schnall suggested that there was no need actively to enforce misery as part of the school curriculum.

Linked to from here.

At least there’s no suggestion that happiness should be enforced.

Wednesday May 28 2008

A few days ago the dog ate my homework.  Remember that?  Probably not, because, who reads this that devotedly?  (If anyone does, feel free to comment to that effect.  By the way, don’t you think that this dog, a real dog this time, is very amusing?  I do.)

So anyway, what was this metaphorical dog?  Basically, what happened was that as the deadline for posting here approached, I got stuck into a domestic housekeeping job.  Arranging my embarrassingly large collection of movie DVDs recorded from off the telly in alphabetical order, as it happens.  And I found myself enjoying it.  Something about the fact that I wasn’t doing it for anybody else, and thus nobody was bossing me, and the fact that I’d been meaning to do this for ages, and knew that the sense of increased order and driven-back entropy would please me greatly, once the task was done.  So, instead of breaking that off and writing some piece of drivel for this blog, I carried right on into the small hours of the next morning (not that small actually) and only when it was done did I put the posting for what had become yesterday, to the effect that there would basically not be a proper posting. And that was the dog that ate my homework.

I permitted this canine consumption because I was treating myself the way I believe that children should be treated.  The most depressing thing about regular school-type schools, such as I help out in, is the way that children are constantly interrupted.  There they are, often concentrating on something else with amazing completeness, and they are interrupted, and told to do some “work”.  If they allowed their extraordinarily expressive bodies to communicate that they would much rather not be doing this “work”, insult is often added to injury, in the form of a teacher telling them that they must “learn to concentrate”.  I sometimes think that this is the most damaging lesson that schools ever teach.  Someone who can and did concentrate is turned into someone who not only doesn’t, but who ends up believing that they can’t.

We all know how to influence humans, small or big.  Wait for them to do what you want, and then thank them, praise them, compliment them.  I recall one of my early sessions with Small Boy, where the body language in response to all my “suggestions” about what we should do was deafeningly hostile.  He did it (probably because he feared a scene with his deceptively small and charming mother if I snitched on him) but made it clear that he was not amused.  In the end, in sheer desperation, I got him to just draw something.  Anything.  What he drew had, I thought, little merit, and I said, well, I don’t much care for it.  If you like it, then great because at least one of us did, but I’m not impressed.  I don’t believe in lying about things like this, which may make me a pompous swine, but there you go, I don’t.  But nor do I believe in withholding praise where praise is due.  I also told Small Boy that he had concentrated on his task superbly, and I now knew that his powers of concentration were considerable.  My goal is now to have him choosing activities which he knows I regard as appropriately educational, from an ever expanding menu, as it were, so that he is able to get that little bit more into the habit of doing concentrated work, of a sort that he finds not uncongenial.  (This is a compromise between the authoritarian ethos of the school, and the anti-authoritarian ethos of yours truly.)

Once again, I don’t believe I have to explain much of this to the home-educators.  They know all about the almost superhuman powers of concentration that an uninterrupted child is able to wield.

And just as I don’t like interrupting children who are concentrating on something, almost anything, so too, I thought, I would refrain, that evening, from interrupting myself.  I’d put up a holding post saying: sorry, nothing here today.  And then explain the very educational principle being upheld later.  I.e. now.

Good night, and back to arranging my embarrassingly large classical CD collection into chronological order by composer.  Which I am actually not enjoying that much, and from which I needed a break.

Friday May 23 2008

Yesterday, I think it was, I was half-listening to some TV news coverage of the case of Kyra Ishaq, who has just been imprisoned to death in Birmingham.  And I heard something to the effect that Kyra was “taken out of school”, or some such phrase.  I may even have heard the phrase “home schooling”, or something like it.  I do hope that this one horrific case is not used as an all-purpose excuse to restrict the right to home educate.

No mention of any such thing in this report.  In this report, the school angle is prominent, but again, no suggestion that removing children from school is inherently evil.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

I see that Carlotta has been having the same thoughts.

Monday May 19 2008



Idiots in the nicer parts of the nice countries say that violence, cruelty, compulsion etc. are not merely nasty, which they are, but ineffective, which they are not.  Given the objectives of those being nasty, nastiness, again and again, works.  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be nearly so widespread, or nearly so difficult to argue against.  Even those subjected to it have a horrible tendency to believe that it was good and necessary.  And, of course, to pass it on.

Thursday May 15 2008

I like this (linked to from here) :

This is why almost all educational ideas fail: they don’t scale when you take the highly motivated grad students and gifted teachers out of the equation. That’s why I’m tepidly gung ho about Direct Instruction: it has been proven to work with ordinary teachers using ordinary resources.

And this is why, in particular, nationalised education tends to fail.  (See also: world government, dangers of.) As soon as anything “works” they want to – and can – inflict it on everyone.  They should not have this power.  Consent, consent, consent.  And it’s never more important than when a brilliant and proven idea is, by various people and for their own particular and bizarre reasons, being resisted.  Let them resist.  Let the burden of proof be on the scalers, rather than on the scaled upon.

And that applies just as much to “Direct Instruction” as to anything else.

Megan McArdle on the menace of imposed scaling
Balls misses out the “compulsory” bit
“Competition, discipline - and punishment …”
Charles Murray on educational romanticism
Michael J. Lewis on fetters and stern taskmasters
Consent maketh manners
A bottom line moment at Kings Cross Supplementary
Shuggy on the love that really ought not to speak its name
Action for Home Education wiki
Polish deputy education minister says the British should learn Polish
“I’d just tell him to stop and he would …”
A new strategy in the school war
The dangerousness of Sesame Street
Adam Smith and William Godwin on compulsory education
Dave MacLeod loves climbing but hated school
Getting better at teaching Small Boy
Madsen Pirie on using bright children to make unbright children brighter
Don’t mention A levels
Alison Wolf denounces the raising of the school leaving age
Musical compulsion
Thoughts on bullying
NZ stuff